Thoughts on Self-Sabotage

Over the years, both my wife and I have encountered quite a number of individuals who had the ability and skills to succeed, and who then proceeded to commit self-sabotage, often when they were on the brink of accomplishing something they said was important to them. Another instance just occurred, and without going into details, the individual in question suddenly stopped going to two required senior level classes, while attending other classes… and getting good grades in those.  Despite promises to do better, that individual ended up flunking both courses… and being unable to graduate for at least another semester.

It’s easier to understand why people fail if their reach exceeds their abilities, or if accidents or family tragedies occur, or if they become addicted to drugs, or suffer PTSD from combat or violent abuse, or if they suffer from depression or bipolarity, but it’s hard to understand why seemingly well-adjusted people literally throw their future, or even a meaningful life, away.  Some of that may be, of course, that they’re not so well-adjusted as their façade indicates, but I have a nagging suspicion that in at least a few instances, there’s another factor in play.

What might that be?  The realization that what they mistakenly thought was the end of something was just the beginning.  For example, far too many college students have the idea that college is an ordeal to be endured before getting a “real” job that has little to do with what was required in college.  In my wife’s field, and in many others, however, what is required in college is indeed only the beginning, and the demands of the profession increase the longer you’re in it… and some students suddenly realize that what is being asked of them is only the beginning… and they’re overwhelmed.

The same can be true of a promotion. The next step up in any organization usually involves more pay, but today, often the pay increase is minimal compared to the increased workload and responsibilities… and, again, some people don’t want to admit, either to themselves or to others, that they don’t want to work that hard or handle that much responsibility.  So the “easy” way out is self-sabotage… and often blaming others for what happens.

This certainly isn’t the only explanation for self-sabotage, but it does fit the pattern of too many cases I’ve observed over the years… and it also seems to me that cases of self-sabotage are increasing, but then, maybe I’ve just become more aware of them…or maybe the “rewards” for advancement, degrees, etc., just aren’t what they used to be… at least in the perception of some people.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Self-Sabotage”

  1. Kanonfodder says:

    I believe several factors are in play here. The relentless brutal hammer that is succeed or die, has been considerably lessened in the first world. In a poor country, if you have a drought or flood, and your livelihood is destroyed, you have a strong chance of dying. Each day you awaken, you have succeeded, and you must do it again, day after day. The drive to succeed is constant and unrelenting due to the penalty.

    First world countries though, we have: safety nets, risk averse goalsetting, “dumbed down” education (some things are more emphasized, but critical ones aren’t), and a non-judgmental culture, are a few of the vectors to promote seemingly normal people to self-destructing.

    When you can “try and fail” with little consequence in the life-or-death scheme of things, you can over-shoot your capabilities, and pick something above your abilities. Conversely, you can do the same thing, but think your abilities are above the subject and assign less time and resources than are required.

    I personally think that we are also “back loading” the introduction to the “real world” for younger generations too much. If you had a linear progression each year of the idea of what the real world is like, that steps up uniformly, you can prepare for it. However, when you have a false sense of what is required for success, and what it takes to survive in the real world, and then in your final few years of school/first few years after school, the escalation rate appear in their eyes to be hyperbolic, and can be overwhelming.

    Your comments though are spot on. The increased roles and responsibilities with nominal increased compensation is a real buzz kill as well. I currently get to appreciate this bit of fun. I exclusively work with engineers, doing engineering, but because of lack of four year degree, I can neither get title or compensation. They will gladly have me continue do engineering work though. If only opening my own restaurant wouldn’t be a colossal headache from the 80 hour work weeks, and the mountain of rules and regulations, I’d be gone. Maybe on the flip-side of the great “reset” I’ll be ready for my restaurant.

    Enjoy your weekend.

  2. Alan says:

    This is not only a younger generation’s trouble, but a growing progression through out the generations. In the US, at least. I see it in the military, with the people who have joined over the last twenty years. Those who have joined in the last ten have a far different view of how things should be handled, then those who joined in the preceding ten years.

    It was understood that when you arrived at your first command, straight out of the training programs, you were barely worthy of your paycheck. Because in the field, doing your job day in and day out with trained technical supervision was what made you a quality sailor. Many of the sailors who have served under me in the last decade seemed to believe they already had sufficient level of knowledge and skill because they had ‘completed’ their training.

    Even now, with an engineering degree, twenty years in my field and numerous accolades and awards on the wall, I still study. I am still learning and developing my skills. Especially the technical ones, as the technology changes quickly.

    I currently have a co-worker who waffles constantly on that cusp of wanting to be in charge, but doesn’t want the responsibility. The company is offering a negligible pay raise to move up. Even if the pay raise were significant, I don’t believe he’d buckle down and accept the greater responsibility. He doesn’t want it. He likes where he is at and what he is doing.

    Twenty years ago I can recall some of those same feelings, myself. Graduating from high school and being ready to do something, anything!, different. Finding out that the world would take another huge step. And each time I attained what I thought was a milestone goal, seeing that the road just stretched on ahead of me was difficult. Looking back, I consider this simply a part of growing up. Now I consider major changes in my life quite differently then I once did.

    Notions like relocating, new jobs, education, etc, have a whole new meaning to me. My ability to handle them is quite different. I like to believe I am a better person for that development I went through.

  3. Jay Oyster says:

    From reading the author’s past blog posts here, I know he has little regard for the mental toughness or ethical standards of today’s young adults, but speaking from experience, I doubt that what the 20 years olds today are doing is much different than what has happened through the ages. I had just such a self-defeating meltdown myself at the age of 20 . . . over 25 years ago.
    Looking back, with therapy and much self-reflection, it had almost nothing to do with a sudden realization about how hard “real life” was going to be, nor was I sheltered from harsh judgments earlier in life. Something that too many of today’s overly judgmental older folks (and social Darwinists) forget is that sometimes, people just fail. Mine was close to shell-shock. I was doing great in school. Then I hit two mental walls . . . concepts in a couple of courses that, no matter what I did, I could not get my brain to absorb. Looking back, they weren’t even that complex. My brain just hit a wall. And for about a month, I almost shut down. I took all of my exams that semester, and just failed utterly in two classes.

    Why is it that some Olympic athletes collapse under pressure and others don’t? Sometimes it reveals inner weakness. Other times it reveals that the training was over-stressing rather than strengthening. In my case, I recovered, but probably never regained the confidence and life trajectory I had before the event. But I sure as hell learned a big lesson that Fall, one that had absolutely nothing to do with Quantum mechanics.

    There is a tripod that determines these outcomes: the work ethic of the student, the nurturing capabilities of the mentors, and the resiliency of everyone involved. It isn’t always the first item on that list that fails.

  4. I think that way too many young adults have been cheated out of the mental toughness and resilience that they would otherwise have by a society that has confused spoiling and coddling and easy excuses with nurture… and this has made good parenting and good education much more difficult than when my parents raised me or when I raised my children.

  5. Alan says:

    I concur whole heartedly with LEM. It is not a matter of nostalgia. I will grant that many people, across all age groupings, look back and feel that their generation had it so much harsher. In many aspects, I suspect that they are correct. My grand-parents worked through a Great Depression, two world wars, and numerous other difficulties. My father worked through a number of economic slumps, Vietnam, five wives and who knows what else. Each generation will face it’s troubles.

    However, there are whole boxes of statistics to back a variety of trends in US society. One of them is that people expect more for less. Another is that people believe they are owed more by the government. (How the government is to give them more, while taking in less income is beyond me. And a whole additional discussion, besides.)

    There is a growing trend that began more then twenty years ago, probably closer to forty, now, which has gained a strong foothold. The popular belief that disciplining your child is cruel. That a child must be coddled and assured that life will be fair. That nothing is beyond their reach if only they try. Or that a child should have life offered to them on a platter.

    Much of this leads to the ‘tea cup’ syndrome. After being cosseted and protected for most of their lives people do shatter when they run up against failure. If every teacher grades on a curve, and no student can be allowed to fail, it builds an unrealistic expectation in the mind of the student. Thus when they encounter real difficulties that require the student to strain and stretch their mind they still expect to succeed. Only they fail, for over reaching their abilities. That failure causes their fragile ‘tea cup’ grip on things to shatter like dropped fine china.

    The same occurrence in college can later occur in the work force. Employees who have worked for me have shut down entirely when told their best wasn’t good enough. That their lack of attention to detail, lack of study, preparation, etc, is unacceptable. They stop performing because the stress of what they perceived to be their required work level was utterly at odds with what was actually required of them.

    Sometimes a swift kick in the posterior, reminding them of their job, their duties and responsibilities would restart them. Other times it took harsh tasking, micromanaging the individual till they began to perform at something like an acceptable level. Some people are motivated through fear, others through pride. My stance was that as long as they did the job, I didn’t care how or why they did it.

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